It is 4.30am and I’m cursing my insomnia as I groggily make my way to the Angama Photographic Studio. The stars are still out shimmering in full force and briefly I lose myself in galaxies far, far away. Moments later I’m seated at the back of a land cruiser, snaking our way through the Mara Triangle. The air is brisk and my drowsiness evaporates giving way instead to a growing nervousness. I determinedly shut my eyes, hoping to somehow catch a power nap during the short drive to what is to be my very first hot air balloon experience.
My trepidation is momentarily stilled by the warm and professional welcome we receive at Governor’s Camp but my mind quickly snaps back to an endless stream of questions – will I be able to successfully climb into the basket (I am as short as I am round), what if I drop my camera, what if I throw up or pass out, what if I just panic and they have to make an emergency landing?
And then they start to inflate the balloon.
Powerful fans are used to help with the initial stages of the balloon inflation until it is ready for take off. Immediately, my anxiety is tempered by the very first real waves of excitement. Up and up it goes, a towering rainbow kaleidoscope filled with the spirit of adventure – and also, hot air. I pay intense attention to the safety briefing given by our pilot, Alex McCafferty, a 30-year balloon safari veteran, but still somehow fumble with my harness to the point where I need to be assisted by a guest from AngamaMara to get it on properly. I can feel my anxiety rising again. We’re finally directed to climb aboard and for the sake of my ego, we’ll pretend that I do this with the utmost grace and agility.
I honestly don’t know what I expect during take off – but it isn’t a sudden blast of hot air followed by instructions to stand up, only to find ourselves already several feet in the air - and quickly but smoothly rising. It is simply magical. My anxiety immediately completely dissipates. Never before have I felt such tranquility. Up and away we go, leaving our guide Dougie watching us from the ground below.
Mara sunrises are stunning and I have - and always will - wax lyrical about them. However, a Mara sunrise viewed while suspended in mid-air? Oh boy. There’s nothing quite like seeing those first golden rays illuminate the distant horizon. It almost feels as though we’re gently coaxing the sun out the higher up we go. And oh what glorious wonder it reveals beneath us.
The banks of the Mara are lined with an almost impenetrable forest of trees. These lush forests are laid bare, their density no match for the birds-eye vantage point we now have. The Mara River turns into a mirror as the sun hits it just right, and her tributaries, shimmering and serpentine, twist and turn across the landscape and bewildered buffalo watch as we hover above them.
Impala and topi appear almost minuscule against the backdrop of the escarpment. We are as much a curiosity to them as they are to us. Between the buffalo, impala, waterbuck, elephant, giraffe and even a rhino with her young one – it’s hard to tell who is watching who as we both stare in equal fascination.
The higher we go some elements of the Mara grow smaller while the true scale of others are revealed. We rise and fall and pirouette at the hands of the experienced pilot even as we drift at the whim of the wind. I would float all day given half the chance but woe, all good things must come to an end.
We’ve been warned that we’ll experience a few bumps before coming to a complete stop and that wind speeds mean we’ll likely land on our side - sure enough, we do. I promptly exit with the same level of grace with which I climbed aboard, while the deflated balloon lends an incredible pop of colour to the savannah.
I may be physically back on the ground but I am still riding a euphoric mental high. I can barely keep up with the animated conversations happening around me. A Champagne breakfast does snap me quickly back to earth, albeit temporarily – now that my stomach is no longer in knots I am ravenous and everything is so delicious.
It’s time to head back to the lodge. Finally sated, I look out at the savannah and my mind immediately floats back up to the clouds.
Black rhino are rare, so to see a pair so close by was quite a treat for Jeff who utilised heavy shadows to create a contrasting monochrome image of his chance encounter.
Filed under: This Week at Angama
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Hot Air Ballooning